digregorio
Photo: Alex Fisher / The Daily Pennsylvanian

An eighteen-year-old Zack DiGregorio sat in a spacious office on an old couch surrounded by whiteboards mounted on the walls. The room was long — or so it felt. It seemed that I was very far away from the desk that sat at the back of the room and looked like any other football coach’s desk, littered with papers and binders strewn about. My dad sat at the other end of the couch as we waited for Jonathan Michaeles, head football coach of Colby College, to come meet us on one of the final legs of my college tour. It was a mid-August evening and we’d just sat through an info session on the quaint college of just 1,800 students, set on a small lake in Waterville, Maine, went on a tour, and I had an admissions interview at our second college of the day.

Coach Michaeles walked in about five minutes later. We quickly exchanged pleasantries and small talk about the drive, the tour, and the like. He then looked down at his notepad and asked bluntly, “So, Zack, why do you love football?” I was immediately taken aback. What do you mean, why do I love football? Of course I love it, who is this jamoke to come in and question that?

I quickly came to two realizations: the first was that he obviously didn’t mean the question in an accusatory way, so best not to call this genuinely nice man who smiled with his eyes as much as his mouth a jamoke. The second was that no one, least of all myself, had ever stopped to ask me this question before. I’ve had coaches, teammates, and literally a dozen fans in my football career, and no one had ever questioned my love of the game. In high school, I often found myself upset — sometimes to the point of tears — when I saw teammates not working or not caring on the field. I’ve done the same in college and I doubt my teammates would say anyone else has as much fun while doing it as I do. But I had never thought about, let alone have to articulate, why.

***

I love lots of things. I love Kit Kats, I love fancy cheese platters, I love the Fast and Furious movie series, I love Shea Serrano articles, and I love podcasts, to name a few. I love my family and my friends and stuff too, of course, but mostly the podcasts and the cheese. What do all those things have in common, though? They’re simple; I loved them right off the bat because it’s easy. It’s not like I ate my first Kit Kat and went, “Uh oh, I am going to have a complicated, yet loving relationship with this for the rest of my life.” Perhaps my relationship with Kit Kats has grown in breadth, maybe, in terms of the number that I eat, but hasn’t grown in depth at all.

I didn’t love football immediately. I played tackle football for the first time in eighth grade on a team of 16 players and decided I wanted to play quarterback the day before my first practice. My coaches let me because I could remember all the plays, and I didn’t mind touching the center’s butt before every play — quite a consideration for 13 year olds.

My first practices started off on the wrong foot: they cut down my vacation with my cousins so that I could wear a bulky helmet and oversized shoulder pads in the August heat on a half-grass half-dirt field. It was hard. The season didn’t get easier as our team recorded negative yardage in most of our games, and a lot of those yards were a result of me getting sacked. For most of the season, the longest pass I completed was to my left guard on a screen pass who inexplicably turned around and caught the ball on the play and ran for nine yards with it. The referees either didn’t notice he was the left guard or felt bad for us as a team. My first season ended with me on a back board getting ambulanced off the field and taken to a local hospital, and I spent the next two weeks in a neck brace — a favorite accessory of 13-year-olds everywhere, like head gear braces or eye patches.

For whatever reason — be it stubbornness, stupidity, or the idea that football players got all the girls in high school (spoiler: they don’t unless they look like the guys in Friday Night Lights) — I played freshman football and was hooked from day one. Anyone who played a high school sport knows that there is no higher pedestal to be on than being a senior in the eyes of the freshman. I started playing, and from the beginning it was clear the game was hard for them too, but it was hard for a different reason, though I couldn’t quite figure out why. I had fun playing the game and being with my friends, and, even if it didn’t come with all the girls, it was cool to say you were on the football team in high school.

My junior year I was slated to be the back-up quarterback to start the season, until our starter, a senior, broke his throwing hand in our first game. Now I was the guy everyone looked at in the huddle, and the very next game, the guy everyone looked at sprawled out on the ground after taking a hit that made everyone watching the game hold their breath for a second. We were overmatched, no matter who was playing quarterback, but maybe I was in over my head.

The next game was the Zack DiGregorio coming out party. Two touchdowns, 170 yards passing and a win against a big rival. Even then, at my highest point in my athletic career that far, it didn’t hit me that I really loved football. Next week, still flying as high on my recent success and the regular brazenness that keeps 16-year-olds afloat, I graced the game on a dreary Saturday afternoon with an even more dreary play. I was benched halfway through the second quarter after starting 1-8 for nine yards, topped off with an interception before I got yanked.

I was told my back-up was going in, and that was that. I was distraught. I had no business being in the game at that point. I couldn’t think straight, I was frustrated to the point where I was shaking and I could barely form a sentence to say to any teammate who was trying to console me. I paced and steamed up and down the sideline, warding off anyone who came to try to pick me up with a piercing glance I’m not sure I’ve replicated since, until halftime. It was not because my coach was wrong to pull me, but because he was right and I deserved it.

That’s when I knew I loved football.

***

I’m sure every athlete at Penn has a story just like mine: a moment when they knew they loved the game and the process, the art, and the passion became just as much a part of the allure as the competition itself. For me, it became an obsession. I never wanted to feel like I did on that sideline ever again and I was going to do every single thing in my power to make sure I wouldn’t. Eventually, I learned I could take that passionate and meticulous approach to different areas of my life I cared about like school, service, relationships and writing these DP columns that I send in late every week because I keep tweaking and editing until I’m convinced it’s the worst thing I’ve ever written.

I love football because of the way it pushes me to want to be better and act on it. I love football because of the physical investment I’ve put in for the last nine years. I love football because of what I have learned about myself through it. I love football because it’s the ultimate team game, creating a totally unique bond among teammates.

Fiddling with my fingers in Coach Michaeles office, trying to come up with an answer to his “Why” question, I’m sure I said some of these things, just slightly less eloquently. But, like every relationship of love, I’m still learning. To be honest, I’m still answering that question today and will probably never pin down just the right words to tell my story. But, also just like every relationship of love, I don’t think I’m ever going to stop looking for that answer.

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